Siri, Print Me A Chair


This post originally appeared on my blog at

In the future, should we ever bore of our jetpacks and decide to come back down to earth, sit at the hovertable and eat our 3D-printed bacon and eggs, we’ll need something to sit on. With today’s open design tools, it seems the future of furniture is already upon us (or are we upon it?). When you combine 3D software with digital fabrication equipment like CNC mills and laser cutters, you’re just a few mouse clicks and the push of a button away from your own quasi-futuristic space furniture. That’s the theory, anyway. This week I’ve been experimenting with creating my own open source chairs and there’s a little more to it than just hitting Ctrl+P.

I’ve been using a simple free software program called SketchChair which avoids some of the usual complications of computer aided design (CAD).

3D CAD software is often expensive, and difficult for beginners – there can be quite a learning curve just to make a simple mock-up. When trying to make a physical object like a chair there’s even more to think about – how much weight can your design handle? How about joining your parts together – do you know your dovetail from your dado? What materials and construction techniques will you use? Will you mill it from solid wood, or slot it together from lasercut 2D sections?

Even once you’ve designed a 3D model with all this in mind, you need to communicate this design to your fabrication machine in a way it understands – with the right settings and file formats. Then comes prototyping, testing and adjustment. And I’m assuming you’re doing all this work without anything to sit on.

One way to reduce this confusion is to use a simplified, very specialized tool which can be as basic or as in-depth as the user requires. SketchChair, for example, has one main function: it allows you to design a chair in 3 dimensions, and have it ready to be cut out in minutes. But allow plenty more time for tinkering…

You draw your chair in profile, and the software instantly adapts it with perpendicular slats, turning your quick doodle into a digital blueprint of pieces which can be cut from a flat sheet and slotted together in a 3D form.

It solves many of the usual CAD issues simply by making decisions for the user. You can go deeper and fiddle with details and settings, but the standard settings allow the user to focus on their design without getting stuck on joints and angle calculations.

One unexpected problem I had wasn’t a software issue – it was inspiration. Most people don’t spend their lives fretting about the angle of a chair’s back – sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it in front of you, in context. I’m no chair expert, and once I started drawing, I realised that my ‘original ideas’ were all just sad copies of the Panton or Barcelona chair….

Not all my designs worked out so well for my poor test subject

Not all my designs worked out so well for my poor test subject

It took a day or two, but I got there in the end – making a chair with SketchChair is indeed much faster than learning joinery and manufacturing by hand, but it’s not quite instant.

First of all, it’s beta software – it’s still buggy and best left to the intrepid, or at least, the very patient. It takes time to explore and understand the scope of what can and can’t be achieved.

To make a physical model you can test out your prototype with cardboard and scissors, but a full-size wooden version is trickier. I don’t have a laser cutter or CNC mill, so the choice is either sending the design files to a manufacturing service like Ponoko or Shapeways (takes a few weeks) or hunting down someone in your local area who can make the chair for you. Depending on where you are, it might take a while to find someone – try 100k Garages or a FabLab – but you’ll meet a friendly local and it should be done in an afternoon.

I found a CNC guru down at Open Design City, my local makerspace. We still haven’t found time to cut the chair out, but hopefully I’ll be sitting on my very own SketchChair in a week or two. I guess that’s one of the issues with dealing with people rather than factories – they still have to eat, work and sleep. Once I figure out how to upload my design to the SketchChair design library, it’ll be available for anyone to download, adapt or improve, under an open source license.

At this stage SketchChair users can only ‘like’ a design in the online library, but in the future I can see something more akin to the Thingiverse model, which is an online repository of designs, mostly for 3D printing.

Thingiverse has an active community of users posting designs under open licenses, commenting, rating, reviewing and offering suggestions, and has grown into a supportive digital fabrication community. When people remix designs, they link back to the original. The site serves as inspiration, a place to learn, and a channel for feedback.

As you browse a repository of designs you also begin to understand the capabilities of a manufacturing technique and just what can be achieved – in SketchChair’s case, the bowls and tables created with the software show you a much broader range of possibilities than the name implies.

IKEA’s not going to be toppled any time soon, but if personal design and digital fabrication is going to become a bigger part our lives, it’s online communities like Thingiverse and specialized tools like SketchChair which will enable beginners to get the most out of their ideas. I think we’ll see many more examples in the coming years – SketchChair is a great start, but why not SketchHouse? SketchBike? SketchShoe?

Does Anyone Know Smartphone CPR?

Maybe I should have started with an open source dumbphone…

This post originally appeared on my blog on

Today’s smartphone industry is controlled by giant tech companies with impenetrable black-box devices running proprietary software, who engage in patent lawsuits and baby-panda eating in their spare time. This last claim may not technically be true, but I figure it’s election season, why can’t I get in on the fun?

Many may hope for an alternative phone which offers more freedom for the user, more transparency and more adaptability. But a viable consumer option may be a long way off.

So far there has only been one option for a smartphone which is truly open and free (as in freedom) – the Openmoko project from 2008, which has now been reborn as Open Phoenux. Mine arrived a couple of weeks ago.

Not only does it run free software, but the hardware is also open source – the manual comes complete with board layouts and schematics for each of its parts.

Why would anyone want an open source phone in the first place? For the same price, you could get a shiny new iPhone.

First of all, the Open Phoenux is not meant to compete head-to-head with Apple and Samsung – not yet, anyway. It’s not a phone built for the casual consumer. It is a phone by geeks, for geeks – a developmental playground to learn how a phone works, to write operating systems and other mobile software, to hook up to different devices, to run hacks and hobby projects. By keeping the hardware and development open, it means that the experience and improvements of the developers are shared with the commons, for anyone to use and build upon. It makes it easier for people to develop new, unexpected uses for mobile technology. When a user has a better understanding of what’s actually inside their phone, they might also start to think a little bit more about where everything came from. With open hardware, the components can easily be replaced and upgraded, making for longer smartphone lifecycles. Ever tried upgrading an iPhone’s hardware? Apple have special proprietary screws just to keep you out of ‘your’ phone. They don’t want you to be able to change the battery. They don’t want you to understand why your phone isn’t working, they just want you to buy a new one. At least some people are trying to fight this tendency:


My Open Phoenux came with Linux pre-installed, but in order to actually make calls you need to install a smartphone operating system. I settled on QtMoko as it was said to be the easiest to get started. I realised this was going to be a technical challenge for someone who has only been using free software for a couple of months, and had never even partitioned a hard drive, but I was prepared to be patient, to be thorough, and above all to be very, very careful.

I checked and double-checked my way through the instructions: Card formatted correctly! QtMoko prepared in the right way! Battery inserted! Device turned on! Bootloader! This is all going remarkably well, I thought. My internal high-fives quietly disappeared when I realised the phone had stopped responding.

He's not dead, he's just pining for the fiords.

He’s not dead, he’s just pining for the fiords.

Replacing the battery did nothing. Threatening it back to life with a fierce shake of my fist may have been somewhat optimistic. Shaking two fists proved more therapeutic, though yielded similar results.

Somewhere along the line I must have taken a wrong turn. In my hand I held more technology than all the Apollo missions combined, and I had turned it into something with all the computing power of a moon rock.

I needed help. As with any open source project, the place to turn is the community itself.

Those who responded on the mailing list managed to work out the problem, and I can proudly say that my phone did not die in vain – they have now fixed the installation package and improved the documentation to stop anyone else following my own wobbly footsteps to oblivion.

Meanwhile I must wait until I can get my hands on the right kind of cable to be able to reanimate my phone and make that long-awaited first call. Until then I’m left coming up with new uses for a temporarily-dead open source smartphone around the house:

It happens to be a very handy beer opener.

It happens to be a very handy beer opener.

And an extremely sturdy beer coaster.

And an extremely sturdy beer coaster.

Remove the battery and you've got a sneaky mini-safe to hide valuables and foil burglars.

Remove the battery and you’ve got a sneaky mini-safe to hide valuables and foil burglars.

Works beautifully as a spy mirror. Or a makeup mirror, if you're that kind of spy.

Works beautifully as a spy mirror. Or a makeup mirror, if you’re that kind of spy.

As a bookmark it leaves no room for confusion.

As a bookmark it leaves no room for confusion.

An invaluable companion while woodworking, its ergonomic form creates the perfect sanding block.

An invaluable companion while woodworking, its ergonomic form creates the perfect sanding block.

Any other ideas?

I’ll keep you posted on my progress resuscitating this Open Phoenux, and if you’re interested in this area, keep an eye on developments with the free software operating system Firefox OS, and also the Fairphone initiative to bring more transparency, choice and accountability to phone production.



I mean, it’s not necessarily functional yet, but at least it turns on…

Keeps Your Whites Whiter and Your Skin Itchier

Somebody left me alone with dangerous chemicals. I made soap!

This post originally appeared on my blog at

In attempting my Year of Open Source, I’m dealing with some very complicated, hi-tech issues. My open hardware smartphone arrives tomorrow, I’m trying to build a microphone pre-amp, & I’m about to learn how to program a microcontroller. But how do the ideas of open hardware and free software apply to lo-tech products? Laundry powder, for example? You don’t see detergent brands taking each other to court over patent breaches, the products have hardly changed in decades, and the manufacturing process is not protected. No problem there. But at the same time you don’t get the recipe on the back of the box, you’re not encouraged to try to make laundry powder yourself, and to most people, that strange white powder with the blue flecks and the lilac scent is a complete mystery. Even if it does have oxi-action, enzymes and a freshness blast.


Time to start investigating. I had seen an alternative to laundry powder at the local organic store – soapnuts, the fruit of the soapberry tree, which you throw in your machine and somehow, apparently, your clothes come out clean. I assumed it was some kind of homeopathic magic beans scam.


I did some serious research before buying. Sure, there’s some pseudoscience and misleading claims about soapnuts around the place- did you know “there is evidence they were used to cure hysteria”? But for washing clothes, they’re legit. Soapnuts contain saponins, a chemical compound whose structure, like soap, has a fat-loving end and a water-loving end, allowing oil and grease to be surrounded by water molecules, breaking them apart and allowing water to better penetrate material. Saponins effectively break up the surface tension of water and allow clothes to get ‘wetter,’ making it easier to rinse off dirt when agitated.

Great! Soapnuts! No recipe required! Open source, right? Well… I can’t grow soapnuts here in Berlin, I’m still at the mercy of the market – there’s only one type of soapnut available, and I can’t change them to suit my preferences or the water in my area. Nor have soapnuts taught me what laundry detergent actually is or how it’s made. In order to address these issues, I decided to make my own washing powder as well.


A quick online search will tell you that you need three ingredients: washing soda, borax, and soap. An in-depth search will tell you that as of 2010, borax is a restricted chemical in the EU, prolonged exposure can cause reproductive problems, and it is no longer sold to the general public. Baking soda is a good replacement.

Here I needed to set myself some limits – just how DIY should I go? Do I want to collect a bucket of seawater, dig my own limestone, and make washing soda at home? To keep it simple I thought I’d stick to making the soap. But what is soap? Where does it come from? Is it dug from the lavender-scented soap mines of central Africa? I knew there was some kind of oil involved, but I’d never really given much thought to how it’s made or what it contains. Back to Wikipedia!


As it turns out, there are many different fats and oils you can use. Olive oil, tallow, lard, seed oils – and in the past, soap was made from all kinds of animal fats – whale oil, penguin oil, seal oil, you name it – if it’s cuddly, it can be turned into soap. An advantage of making your own soap is that you can use whatever fats happen to be locally abundant – in Greenland you could whip up a pungent walrus blubber soap, in Samoa coconut fat would do nicely, and here in Berlin I guess you’d go for pig fat and rapeseed oil. But for now I’m just using a generic recipe to learn the process.

The core idea behind soap making is mixing fatty acids with a strong alkaline solution, lye, which react to form a salt: soap. Lye is made from water and sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic compound used as drain cleaner, and bizarrely, also used for glazing pretzels.

My local chemist told me that yes, they had sodium hydroxide, but no, they would not sell it to me. It was “too dangerous”, and I was likely to injure myself. I explained that I had protective equipment, an understanding of the dangers, and a reasonably sane mind, but it was no use. Luckily, online sellers asked no questions about my mental state and were quite happy to ignore any threat to my well-being. Excellent.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

I found a simple recipe online, dressed myself handsomely in apron, gloves and safety goggles, and got mixing. It’s a fascinating process – the furious heat of the chemical reactions, the choking, lung-burning lye fumes (hold your breath), the slow transformation from oily liquid to a bubbling gloop. As it turns out, it’s much easier than I expected – it only took 15 minutes or so, and I somehow avoided searing my flesh with chemicals.


Soap-making is a little cheaper than buying commercial soap, and now I’ve found out how easy it is, I can start to have some fun with it. I’m keen to try different recipes – a hot-process version that you can use without weeks of curing, something using locally available oils, experiments with different fragrances. Who says soap must smell like potpourri? Now I’m free to make any fragrance I like. Maybe I could make my millions selling authentic Berlin soap to tourists – with the delicate aroma of cheap beer, cigarettes and currywurst. Look out for an open-sourced recipe soon…

Even if you don’t want to go through all the excitement of making soap, you can still save yourself a few bucks and have some fun making your own laundry powder. Grate a bar of laundry soap, add a cup of washing soda, half a cup of baking soda, and voila. It does look a lot like freshly grated parmesan, so maybe label the container to avoid any foamy pasta mix-ups.

How Public is Your Transport?

This post originally appeared on my blog at

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens' struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens’ struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)


Last week I was lucky enough to be at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki – 4 incredible days of workshops, talks and hackathons bringing together some of the best ideas and brightest minds in the fields of open government, science, education, hardware and data. Trying to live as ‘open source’ as possible does present plenty of challenges when travelling.

What to do about open source accommodation? We stayed with kind and generous locals via free hospitality exchange: BeWelcome is the open source option, non-profit, democratic and transparent– Couchsurfing is none of these, but it has the biggest user share.

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

Hospitality exchange is the best way to get an insight into the local culture (and learn about the Moomins). Want to know why there are slot machines in all Finnish supermarkets? Or what blueberry soup tastes like? Want to see a Chernobyl simulator inside the Helsinki Hacklab? Then go to Finland, and stay with a local!

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs' Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs’ Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

I knew transport would be a difficult problem to solve. Up until now I’ve just been riding my old-style 1-speed patent-free bicycle to get around Berlin, but leaving the city meant I had to look elsewhere. Openness in transport can be at various different levels – you could drive an open source car, fly an open source plane, you could share a vehicle, or simply share a ride. My attempts to find the ‘shariest’ option to get to Helsinki from Berlin proved to be somewhat of a failure, only managing to ride-share one leg of the journey. But as it turned out, the festival itself was the ideal place to find out more about the possibilities for the future.

One recurring theme at this conference was open data. Information collected by governments, NGOs and companies, released openly in machine readable formats. Open data presents an opportunity to compare statistics, to make graphs, apps and maps which allow us to better understand the world and see what needs improvement, to base our understanding on facts rather than impressions. Transport companies, the heart of a city’s circulatory system, hold extremely important data on how the city works, in terms of passenger volume, timetables, delays, access to neighbourhoods and energy use. The festival included 3 days of fascinating discussions and presentations on the developments and challenges of Open Transport.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki was the ideal place for such a discussion – for a country with an astonishingly incomprehensible language, the Finns do have a very clear public transport system, and it’s a great example of open data in action. Helsinki Regional Transport’s timetable and realtime information is shared openly for anyone to build upon. You can mix this data with anything else you like – air pollution or noise levels – crime or economic activity, rent prices – and you start to have a clearer understanding of a city.

A great advantage of opening up data as a company is that 3rd party apps can improve customer experience with your product. There are now apps which tell you exactly where every tram in Helsinki is right now. In fact it’s got a little ridiculous – Helsinki has only one metro line, but you have the choice of 35 mobile apps giving updates, mashups and realtime information to help you navigate it. Good data can allow you to check-in using location-based services on a moving vehicle, not with GPS but with interpolation of timetable information. You could link transport data with special calendar events or weather, and work out when demand is likely to be high. Info on delays or heavy use of transport could be relayed to other users.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

It’s not just Finland – in Sweden the government now requires all transport companies to open their data through a central agency. One man’s polite, patient but persistent inquiries built a British rail database, and now the government is trying open transport data itself. The United States has a comprehensive Open Transport Data plan, and is working on making sense of every train connection in Belgium, the Netherlands and part of France.

This isn’t a universal movement yet – I live in Germany, where organisations love the idea of modernity, but can’t quite bring themselves to follow through. The raging desire to be high-tech suddenly gets all soft and pulpy when faced with abandoning the pure certainty of print on paper- this is a country where you can fill in your whole tax form online, before you print and send it by post. My online banking service requires a printed paper code to run. For most companies, an ‘Online-Portal’ means a personalised login, to request which account details you would like to see – they can be mailed to your door early next week. So no surprise there’s a lack of imagination in official channels when it comes to open data.

Open data on Berlin's transport website- No results found.

Open data on Berlin’s transport website- No results found.

Deutsche Bahn has hardly begun the slow, iron crank into the 21st century, and Berlin’s 90 miles of underground trains are served by a single basic, officially sanctioned app. No offline version for tourists or others who aren’t connected. No extra mobility information for wheelchair access times; no easy analysis of infrastructure for city planners; no calculation of energy consumption or carbon footprints. No opportunity for integration with OpenStreetMap or OpenTripPlanner. And most importantly, no compromise shown to campaigners trying to prise this data from the city transport agency’s rusty old vaults.

Some frustrated open data activists have started to give dark and dusty German institutions a push into the light, whether they like it or not. A couple of weeks ago Michael Kreil and others finished what I can imagine was 3 weeks of intense copy-pasting, working to scrape what useful data they could from publically available Deutsche Bahn PDFs and the Berlin transport timetables, publishing a clean dataset for others to build on. The hope is that others will use this data to build visualisations, reports and online applications and show these creaky old companies how valuable opening their data could be.

Just to get you started, here’s a mesmerising 30-second look at Berlin’s public transport network – green dots are overground trains, blue are underground, red are trams and purple are buses.

So far the publicity the move has generated seems to be having an effect. Berlin’s transport data may be officially opened by the end of the year. Nationally it might take longer. Deutsche Bahn first responded to the move with a gruff “bah, humbug. We have one of those app things already.” Then the taxpayer-funded corporation last week finally released its data, but not to the public – they signed an exclusive deal with Google.

To round out the festival, in a packed keynote address, Hans Rosling encouraged people to ‘demand open data‘ to increase understanding of the world they live in – but when demanding doesn’t work, grabbing, scraping, and collecting data seems the best alternative. Open data, with, or without permission.

How open is transport data in your region?
Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.

Serve Cold, with a Heated Licensing Discussion

 This post originally appeared on my blog on

A few weeks ago I was thirstily on the hunt for open source beer – and I’m pleased to report that I’ve found one! Two, even.

One was right under my nose here in Berlin, and the other, a little further afield: My brother came to visit this week, bringing a bottle of Yeastie Boys Digital IPA all the way from New Zealand – it’s a craft beer which provides the link to the recipe on the bottle. It’s also notoriously tasty. Knowing my brother’s penchant for hoppy brews, I do suspect that he may have originally set off with a 6-pack, and lightened the load en route.

I also went to see Fabricio Do Canto at the Meta Mate Bar across town, where they sell their Mier, a beer with the caffeine buzz of Yerba Mate brewed into it. Once again, the beer label includes a QR code leading to the recipe.

What I find interesting, and what distinguishes a recipe for Mier or Digital IPA from normal online recipes (or from the open source Free Beer project) is that it is the recipe for an actual commercial product. You can buy a beer, enjoy it and inspect the recipe used to make it. It’s an element of transparency which gives the user a clear understanding of the product. Wondering how they add the Mate to the beer? What kind of barley Yeastie Boys used? Read the recipe. If you’re a brew guru, and you want to change or improve the recipe, then by all means, do whatever you like. Or if you’re a novice brewer and just want to see how close you can get to ‘the real thing’ then it’s a great project to try out.

These beers are basically open source, in that a recipe process can’t be copyrighted. The actual writing of a flowery, wordy recipe could be copyrighted. But the bare-bones formula is free for any use you like – a brewer could adjust these online recipes to her own taste, and sell the beer as her own, as long as it was not branded as ‘Mier’ or ‘Digital IPA’.

One interesting conversation I had on Twitter* with Edmunds Sulzanoks covered the issue of Mier’s Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike-Non Commercial license, which is proudly stated on the bottle.

Creative Commons has a range of licenses available which provide a ‘some rights reserved’ copyright, and these allow books, films, music, and products to be remixed, adapted, or built upon by others. For example, my videos are available for anyone to use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

I saw Mier’s choice of their license as being a statement of intent – encouraging people to make and modify the beer themselves, and call it Mier. The Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license means that anyone can produce Mier according to the recipe, and use the Mier branding for non-commercial use. They just have to attribute Mier to its creators and release any modified version under the same license.

But Edmunds’ point was this: what is the difference between releasing a brandname under a Non-Commercial license, and a normal licensed franchise? What is non-commercial use of a brand? Why would you need branding if you’re giving the beer away?

Certainly Mier’s intentions are good, and their franchising method is very much hands-off, allowing others to change the recipe and create a very different product, but this example is exactly the kind of situation which makes the Non Commercial license difficult to work with, and a little vague.

There are considerable differences of opinion as to whether Non Commercial means ‘no monetary transactions involved’ or simply ‘not-for-profit’. What if I wanted to sell my homebrewed, branded Mier at a bake sale, raising money for a non-profit charity? Donating the proceeds to cure malaria, perhaps? Or raising money for the deportation of Simon Cowell and the world’s wasp population to an island in the mid-Atlantic? It wouldn’t be for profit, but rather the benefit of all humankind. Is that non-commercial?

I promised myself when I started this project I would try not to get embroiled in pedantic licensing discussions, but look at me now…

The reason I’m interested in the Non Commercial license is that, even if it still restricts use of a product or artistic material, it often acts as first step away from traditional copyright. There are areas where it makes a significant difference – using Non-Commercial licensed music in an educational video, for example, rather than having to officially license the use of each track.

Depending on your point of view, the Non Commercial license is either the methadone that can wean copyright junkies off their all-rights-reserved habit, or it is a gateway drug to the psychedelic and dangerously addictive world of open source and free culture.

This week there’s been an awful lot of talk about it: the Students for Free Culture made a call for Creative Commons to drop the license altogether, and Creative Commons themselves made the very difficult decision to retain it. It’s a turbulent debate but if you’ve got opinions on this issue, read the discussions, jump in and share your ideas with the Creative Commons community.

So I guess that means for now, I’ll just be brewing these beers for my own purposes. No bake sales for me.

UPDATE: Yeastie Boys have now stated that Digital IPA (name & recipe) is Attribution-Sharealike! Brew away!

Unknown ObjectCheck out the video of my visit to the MetaMate Bar.

*what? Twitter’s not open source! For personal use, I’ve jumped from Facebook to Diaspora. But there is still a Year of Open Source Facebook page and @YrOfOpenSource Twitter to spread the word to people outside of the more niche open source networks.

Sharing some wisdom (teeth)

This post originally appeared on my blog at

How would the collaborative techniques, freedom, flexibility and transparency of free and open source software apply to dentistry? These questions, and a high-powered drill, were going through my head this week as I cut my teeth as a Linux user and encountered my first difficult situations in my Year of Open Source.

It’s been an odd few weeks getting used to my new open source life – some areas have hardly changed. I’m still sleeping on my left side. Still drooling on my pillow. Still riding my patent-free old-style bike (for now).

I’ve been looking into open source clothing – check out the first ideas for personalized clothing and our subsequent brainstorm session – there will be a practical workshop in the next couple of weeks when we’re actually going to make some open source boxer shorts.

Software is one area that has totally changed. No more Mac OS. Although my year is mostly about the ideas that have spread from free software to other areas, switching to Linux is still a very important first step in an open source life.Although the install was an exasperating process, the experience of actually using Ubuntu (as a first-time Linux user) has been wonderfully simple. All the programs work nicely, there’s huge amounts of support in online forums, the Software Center makes installing programs a little too easy. The tiny size of free software applications makes it very tempting to go on a wild free shopping spree, downloading every possible program. Who knows when I might need that Mandelbrot fractal generator? Or a rocket simulator? Maybe this verb conjugation program will magically bring back all my high school French? bien sûr.

The one area where I’ve really struggled is video editing software.

I already knew it was going to be tricky making videos without proprietary software, but so far I’ve got the feeling I’d be better off hand-drawing flipbooks. I’ve been trying OpenShot, KdenLive, and Cinelerra, and I’ve struggled constantly with converting and importing files – I merely threaten a clip with the cut tool and the whole program faints dramatically.

There is definitely potential – Cinelerra seems very in-depth, there are video editing options within the incredible world of Blender, and there are good things on the horizon: Novacut‘s new take on collaborative editing, or the long-promised second-coming of the NLE old-timer Lightworks… still waiting on that source code though

Trying out Novacut - still VERY early days, but I'm hopeful...

However, my current problems have a lot more to do with me being a newbie rather than any inate impossibility of editing on free software. Many people do it, and do it well. It’ll be a necessary learning curve for me & I’m sure that with plenty of help, I’ll untangle this mess of codecs and file containers.

I had hoped be able to anticipate any tricky problems in my project before they arrived, and deal with them through discussion and collaboration, but a few days ago I had my first significant failure. I had decided to calm down a wee bit of tooth pain with the clearly public domain (somewhat victorian) method of a hot salt gargle and an iced flannel (I was fresh out of leeches). But the next morning what had been a slightly sore tooth turned into a huge swell of a mound – two possibilities came to mind: either my face is pregnant, or I have a nasty infection.*

I’ll admit I felt a little helpless, holding an ice pack to the new continent forming on my face as I typed the words ‘open source dentistry?’ into a search engine with my free hand.

Not much to report, except a couple of free software programs and some plans to 3D print fake teeth. It was hardly the time to call a hack session, and with a heavy heart and a bulging cheek, I dragged myself to the traditional dentist. Normally I would say that German efficiency is a myth, but not this time. My wisdom tooth was raus before they could even say Achtung.

So other than asking for generic drugs, there wasn’t much I could do in such a situation.

Over the last few days as my face has contorted to all sorts of new shapes, there’s been little breakthrough work done on the open source front. The only project developing was my girlfriend Judith’s experiments with smoothies and other mushy blended meals, while also thinking up suitable names for the newly jowly man in her life. Orson Swells was a favourite.

Judith captured my natural beauty in her work 'Half-man, half-blimp'

By now I’ve mostly deflated – the only ‘upside’ to my failure in properly investigating the idea of open source dentistry is that I still have 3 more wisdom teeth which need to be removed. Plenty of opportunity for experimentation. Oh good.

So what would a more transparent, democratic, decentralized, open dentistry system be like?

How about a peer production voting system for amateurs? Based upon this dental photo, please select your preferred action: a) let it fester b) yank it out

Some kind of online distributed dental education system where people can learn all the skills they need to take a hand-drill to Auntie’s molars?

Arduino-controlled open hardware dental lights which can also feed your cat and control the Roomba?

As you can see, I need a little help. Suggestions?

*said infection has no relation to my recent switch to open source toothpaste. No relation, I tell you.


 Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.

Kicking off a year of Open Source Everything!

This post originally appeared on my blog at

Sam Muirhead will have to turn his rather non-handy hands to all forms of making and DIY as he attempts to live without proprietary products for a year.

The phrase ‘Open Source’, to many people, means ‘software you don’t have to pay for’ – but really it’s so much more than that. It’s a way of thinking and working focused on transparency and collaborating with others. It’s about sharing ideas, plans, and developments for the benefit of the commons. And it’s definitely not just software.

There are already open source brickmakers, breathalyzers, and underwater robot drones – all with their schematics freely available for use and modification. There are even 3D-printer-printing-3D printers creating a positive feedback loop of innovation and home production.

Within the hacker and maker scene, open source is discussed as a glorious and inevitable global revolution -but outside of this sphere, in schools, offices, malls, farms and film sets, it’s a foreign concept.

I’ve been following open source closely over the last few years, but as a filmmaker, I never felt like I had skills to contribute to the movement’s development.

Even Mac users can be useful to the open source movement.

But then I realized that everyone, whether librarian, beekeeper or mechanic, everyone can use the abilities they have in some way to make the world a little better, to help out a cause or an interest they feel is worthwhile. I felt sure that open source could use a filmmaker.

So I’ve started a somewhat insane plan to spread the word about open source, to get others thinking and talking about these ideas of collaboration, transparency and modification – to show how far open source has come and how far it could go. This will be my Year of Open Source.

For one year I am trying to go as open source as possible, in all aspects of my life – the shoes I wear, the phone I use, even how I get around. I’m not buying any proprietary or traditionally copyrighted products unless all other options are exhausted. I’m looking for and switching to more open, transparent products which are replicable by others, trying to highlight the benefits of treating others as collaborators rather than competitors. I’ll be investigating how the open source philosophy might apply to different areas of life, where it fits well, and where it might not work. Is anybody working on an open source microwave? What would open insurance be like?

Luckily there are plenty of resources and skilled people around to help me...

I’m documenting everything in videos and writing on Shareable and my website; not just my successes but also my ridiculous fumbles and failures as I come to grips with open source. I’m bringing all of these disparate areas of technology, collaboration and DIY together in my journey as an open-source-outsider experiencing a new way of living. And I’m going to be sharing that journey with you, every couple of weeks here on Shareable. I’ll be your crash-test dummy, hurling myself face-first into open source just so you can watch what happens.

I’m in the best possible city to attempt this project – although Berlin’s hardly a slick corporate metropolis. Rent is low, unemployment is high, and beer is cheaper than water. There are fewer people working 40- or 50- hour weeks than other major cities, and this tends to dampen the furious charge of consumerism somewhat. Instead it leaves plenty of time for creativity, and that’s one part of the economy that certainly is booming.

Berlin’s a city that is always changing, growing, fighting, one that can never quite decide what shape it should take. Right now it’s an incredible hotspot of makers, hackers, artists and innovators who are finding their own ways of doing things. They’re sharing their experiences, learning from one another, and building on each others’ creativity. In 2012, Berlin is the hub of a huge open source network, and I’m hoping to catch it on camera before the city morphs into something else entirely.

The only open source thing in this picture is the newly-installed Ubuntu (Linux) operating system

The project officially started on August 1st, and right now I’m making an inventory of everything I own, everything I use, and everything I need, to assess just how much work lies ahead of me – I know it’s a mammoth task, but I don’t know quite how hairy or smelly this mammoth is yet. Looking at my desk right now I’ve can list a camera, microphone, computer, wallet, hard drives, lamp, a couple of books… none of these items are open source. None of them have their schematics available for others to study, copy, or modify. So over the course of the year I’m going to try to find open source alternatives to these – I’ll only buy books which are released under open licenses; I’ll test out an open source video camera; I’ll only buy music which I’m allowed to use in videos or remix.

Some issues are more pressing than others. I’ve only got 12 beers left from before my Year of Open Source started. I’ve got to find an open source beer fast, or start brewing one, and then I’ll share the results with you. This summer’s not getting any cooler.

My last 12 closed-source beers, brewed to a deliciously secretive recipe in the decidely non-transparent Black Forest.

Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.